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Solidarity After Solidarity

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Solidarity was not just an opposition movement. With 10 million members -- more than one quarter of the population of Poland in 1980 -- it was an unprecedented phenomenon. The Communist governments had faced protests from individual dissidents and even from small groups like Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia. There had also been reform efforts launched from within the Party, as in Hungary in 1956. But Solidarity aspired to create an autonomous center, in essence destroying the Party's monopoly on power.

As its name suggests, Solidarity focused not on individual rights but on the common good of society. It was very much a product of the socialist system. And in 1980, it aimed to transform that system, not destroy it. It was one of the ironies of history that the trade union eventually helped put into place a government that instituted an economic reform that hurt its core constituency -- workers in shipyards, coal mines, steel plants, and other large industrial enterprises. The new economy created in the early 1990s was predicated on individual actors presumably acting rationally, not collective entities presumably acting in the spirit of solidarity.

The Solidarity trade union didn't disappear after 1989. There was, for instance, an important railroad strike in 1990. "The strike was in defense of nurses' demands for higher wages," journalist Konstanty Gebert told me in a conversation we had in his apartment in Warsaw last August. "The reasoning was: nurses can't go on strike because they can't abandon patients. That means they'll always get screwed. So they need someone else to strike on their behalf and on behalf of the common interest. The railroad workers went on strike and to make sure that there was no confusion: their only demand was the implementation of the nurses' demands."

He went on, "I was thrilled. I went down to central station to talk to the strike committee. I pretended to be a disgruntled customer. 'Nurses, sure, whatever,' I said. 'But I need to be in Krakow!' And this railroad man with a huge grin patted me on the back, and said, 'There are more important things in life than being in Krakow on time!'"

It was an inspiring moment. But the moment passed, and so did the spirit of the times. "Nobody remembers that strike," he continued. "It's not just forgotten, it's literally unthinkable now. This will stay with us for some time. There are some ideas and values that have been corrupted by the regime so thoroughly that they really need to stay in quarantine until people stop believing these things.

Gebert is a journalist and former opposition activist who has been a keen observer not only of developments in Poland but in many places around the world. He has also been a key figure in the renaissance of Jewish religion and culture in Poland. When I talked with him in 1989 and 1990, he was an invaluable guide to the twists and turns of the Polish transition (below I reproduce the comments he made in an April 1990 interview).

Today, he acknowledges the unavoidability of the economic changes that took place in the 1990s. He also points to the many benefits that Poles have enjoyed as a result of the transition. But one price paid for this transition -- and there have been several -- has been a much greater tolerance for social injustice.

"In Poland, social injustice is symbolic revenge for the Communist years," he reflected. "Only some 20 percent of the Polish labor force is unionized. In many private enterprises, it's dangerous to try to set up a union. People get fired. With unemployment at 13 percent and growing, nobody is going to take the risk of getting fired. Forget solidarity with nurses. You can't even have solidarity with yourself or with another worker who is suffering exactly the same oppression. It's just too dangerous.

We had a wide-ranging conversation on the issue of justice and injustice, covering the economic changes as well as the lustration process, the justice system, and the political response to rising social injustice (or the lack thereof). We also covered the role of the European Union, the debate in Poland created by the book Neighbors, and what it means to be Polish in this day and age.

The Interview

One of the things we talked about 23 years ago was injustice. This is one form of injustice. You made the important point that people went out on the street and joined Solidarity because of a desire for justice. After 1989, economically, they didn't get a lot of justice. Solidarity workers had to pay the price for the transformation. You said that the desire for justice would return. 23 years later, what's your thinking on this?

I'm part of a think tank in Potsdam called the Einstein Forum, which is a kind of luxury playpen for intellectuals. We meet every couple months and discuss things of interest. We have an ongoing series of seminars on motivations. This June we had a seminar on self-interest, with a number of very interesting presentations that debunk the notion that self-interest is the main driving force of history as the theory of rational economics insists. I spoke of Solidarity and fraternity. I gave the example of the strike of Polish railroads in the fall of 1990. The strike was in defense of nurses' demands for higher wages. The reasoning was: nurses can't go on strike because they can't abandon patients. That means they'll always get screwed. So they need someone else to strike on their behalf and on behalf of the common interest. The railroad workers went on strike and to make sure that there was no confusion: their only demand was the implementation of the nurses' demands.

I was thrilled. I went down to central station to talk to the strike committee. I pretended to be a disgruntled customer. "Nurses, sure, whatever," I said. "But I need to be in Krakow!" And this railroad man with a huge grin patted me on the back, and said, "There are more important things in life than being in Krakow on time!"

When I was preparing my presentation I wanted to ask people about it. But nobody remembers that strike. It's not just forgotten, it's literally unthinkable now. This will stay with us for some time. There are some ideas and values that have been corrupted by the regime so thoroughly that they really need to stay in quarantine until people stop believing these things. Incidentally, this also happened in post-fascist societies. If you look at Spain today, the militant anti-nationalism and anti-Catholicism of most Spaniards, I find offensive. I agree with it, but I think there's a gratuitous, in-your face attitude among people who hold those values. I don't hold those values, but I believe that it's legitimate for people to hold them. I believe that a civilized society makes allowances for that. But not in Spain. Because it's still the symbolic revenge for the Franco years.

In Poland, social injustice is symbolic revenge for the Communist years. Only some 20 percent of the Polish labor force is unionized. In many private enterprises, it's dangerous to try to set up a union. People get fired. With unemployment at 13 percent and growing, nobody is going to take the risk of getting fired. Forget solidarity with nurses. You can't even have solidarity with yourself or with another worker who is suffering exactly the same oppression. It's just too dangerous.

In Gazeta Wyborcza yesterday, there was a long interview with the chairman of a private company who makes a million zlotys a month. The interviewer was trying to ask him, "Don't you think it's wrong? Don't you think you should share this with others?" And he was like, "You're out of your fucking mind! That's socialism."

My fear is that most of his workers would agree with him. Remember the one Senate seat in 1989 that we lost. Remember whom we lost it to?

A businessman.

A meat producer named Henryk Stoklosa, who earlier had managed to get expelled from the Communist Party twice for corruption. That's seriously overdoing it! His electoral message was: if there are 300 people working in the salt mines, I'll do everything in my power, if I get elected, to give the three of you who deserve it the chance of striking it rich. The Solidarity candidate should have beaten Stoklosa hands down. That was one of the early writings on the wall. Like the 64 percent turnout in the elections. But at that time, we disregarded it.

There's huge social injustice, and as always, it gets very easily instrumentalized. Remember Samoobrona [the Self-Defense movement and political party]: that's a classic example of the hijacking of social protest by translating it into something destructive but seemingly satisfactory. If you attack a train and dump imported grain, as Samoobrona's leader Andrzej Lepper did, that's not going to help the peasants. To help the peasants would be for the country to be slightly more law-abiding. If you break the law, you ex post facto legitimize the huge scams made on Polish grain, which were the real reason why peasants couldn't make a living. It wasn't imported grain. The scams were made on Polish grain. If you say breaking the law is a good thing, some people will cheer. But the egalitarian slogan that we all have the same stomachs is a) untrue and b) self-defeating. The disaster happens when it eclipses the real egalitarian slogan, which is that we all deserve the same chance. It's not about everyone getting the same. It's about every child getting the same kind of start.

Look at places like Lodz and the textile industry. Even in the previous boom, this was a depression area. The answer is not to have the government nationalize the industries and then subsidize Polish textiles. We can't beat cheaper Chinese labor. The same is true with coal mining. Most of the educational system in Poland is financed by local taxes. If the factories go bankrupt, the tax base dies too. Which means that for an unemployed textile worker in Lodz, it is over. When you're 40 years old with two children and an elementary school education and all you ever did was work in the factory, you will not re-qualify as a computer programmer. It's horribly unfair. Yet it should be included in the general cost of transition.

The problem is that her kids go to substandard schools and get substandard health care, because the region can't finance decent education and health services. And this means they will not get the chance they deserve. This is unacceptable. And this is where the state has an obligation to intervene and doesn't. It doesn't because it's intimidated into believing that it's wrong and that privatization works better. Sometimes it does work better if privatized. Other times it doesn't. The state has this internalized idea that it is inherently evil, morally wrong, institutionally bankrupt, whatever. The most active segments of the population still believe Henryk Stoklosa.

So, there's tremendous social inequality, relatively high unemployment especially among young people, and economic growth that really hasn't trickled down. For the most part, the recognition of social injustice has not translated into political force. Why has an independent Left not emerged?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.